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Nikola Jokic and the Funky Bunch

Their center is their point guard. Their primary scorer sets screens like a big man. But in an era of superteams, the “funky” Denver Nuggets could eventually be among the most serious challengers to Golden State’s dynasty in the years ahead.

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“I’m trying to be not famous,” Nikola Jokic tells me. “For real. I just want to be a regular guy.”

Good luck. The day after Jokic said that, he scored a season-high 40 points and the Denver Nuggets’ home crowd showered him with MVP chants. Between the billboards and the nightly highlight reels of his unfathomable passes, there’s no turning back now for the 23-year-old Serbian. “That doesn’t help,” Jokic says. “It’s a part of the job that we signed for, so you gotta do what you gotta do.”

Jokic is doing a lot for the Nuggets, who are second in the Western Conference at 31-14 and have the NBA’s sixth-best point differential per 100 possessions. Jokic, drafted with the no. 41 pick in the 2014 draft, defines Denver’s style, which Nuggets president of basketball operations Tim Connelly described as “funky.” It’s impossible not to be funky when you’re led by a player like Jokic, who has already passed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for the second most triple-doubles ever recorded by a center. But Jokic isn’t really a center—he’s the point guard in Denver’s offense. Jokic told me that even though he reached his current height at age 16, he always handled the ball. Now he orchestrates everything for the NBA’s fifth-ranked offense: He touches, passes, and possesses the ball more often than almost every other player in the league, according to tracking data. Jokic is averaging 7.7 assists per game this season, which is on track to be the most for any player taller than 6-foot-10 in history besides Wilt Chamberlain. At 7 feet and 250 pounds, the Serbian is the league’s largest lead guard.

There are traits from playmaking legends like Magic Johnson written into Jokic’s code— his flair, the no-looks, the ability to locate teammates like he’s already watched the play unfold. “You watch Nikola every day and you see things that you’ve never seen before,” general manager Arturas Karnisovas tells me in his office at Denver’s Pepsi Center. “He’s an artist. If you ask famous painters, ‘How’d you do that?’ they say, ‘I just did it.’ It’s the same if you ask Nikola: He has a hard time explaining. He just does it and it happens.”

Jokic and I watched videos of his passing, which included mind-numbing highlights like the cross-court whip to Jamal Murray for a 3 and preternatural reads like the high-low passes to Gary Harris slicing to the rim. I asked him to elaborate on how these plays happen, and he said, simply, that he understands his personnel and where they want the ball delivered, and as long as they are in the right place on the court, he’ll deliver. When it comes to explaining how he throws passes like Greg Maddux paints the corner of the strike zone, he is at a loss for words.

“Probably something in my hands. I don’t know what. But the ball always goes where I want to go,” Jokic says. “Thank God, my parents, whoever gave me the talent.”

The Nuggets landed Jokic in the middle of the second round (after passing on him twice in the same draft) largely thanks to their overseas relationships. Connelly spent years as an international scout, while Karnisovas, a native of Lithuania, is one of the greatest international players ever. The Nuggets also have Rafal Juc, who in 2013 became the youngest international scout in the NBA at age 21. There was a lot of luck involved with Jokic’s success, but the Nuggets had enough information to feel confident that drafting a chubby big man with poor conditioning wouldn’t be wasted. “The only thing that was controlling his projection was obviously lack of athleticism,” Karnisovas tells me. Karnisovas likened Jokic’s development to Marc Gasol, whom Karnisovas saw play in high school and in Barcelona. The team felt that Jokic’s body could be fixed, and his skill couldn’t be taught. The Nuggets’ front office was high on Jokic, but they admit they couldn’t have predicted he would become the face of their franchise and a player whom Nuggets head coach Michael Malone calls a future Hall of Famer.

The Nuggets aren’t a one-man show, though. Connelly, Karnisovas, Malone, and team president and governor Josh Kroenke have constructed a deep roster through the draft without any high picks. Of Denver’s top 11 players in minutes this season, only one player was picked in the lottery: Murray, who was selected seventh in 2016. The rest came in the mid-first round (Gary Harris, Juancho Hernangomez, and Malik Beasley), second round (Jokic and Monte Morris), or were undrafted (Torrey Craig). Three players came via trade (Will Barton, Mason Plumlee, and Trey Lyles), and only one was signed in free agency (Paul Millsap). Despite losing more games to injury than any other team in the league, the Nuggets have thrived.

But everything is built around Jokic. Take Murray, for instance. Connelly said Murray was one player the Nuggets had “circled all year” heading into the 2016 draft, and it’s easy to see why. Murray, who spent one season at Kentucky, was one of the youngest players in his draft class, and is someone who could already pull up to shoot from anywhere. Now that he’s improved his handle, he’s become more of a playmaking threat in the pick-and-roll. Murray is even better off the ball and can dart through mazes of screens to create open 3s and layups. Sometimes, Murray—a 6-foot-4 primary scorer—is asked to screen for Jokic.

Murray has done this before. He said that he played the 5 before he stopped growing around ninth grade. After years of experience, Murray said he understands footwork and angles, and “how to hit people.” Jokic joked that Murray gets his strength from his father. “Did you see his dad? His dad is crazy guy. He’s like a little fridge,” Jokic says. “You’re not gonna move him.” The inverted pairing of Jokic as the ball handler and Murray as a screener causes what Malone calls a “moment of indecision” for the defense: opponents habitually switch against the play even though they know they shouldn’t put a guard on Jokic. As a result, the Jokic-Murray pick-and-roll is one of the most efficient tandems in the league. “It’s kind of just a unique play, something you don’t see. You don’t practice that. So it’s hard to play that or defend that,” Jokic says. “You never seen the small guys rolling, so nobody’s even helping.”

Jokic already has finished 80 possessions as the pick-and-roll ball handler this season, per Synergy; since 2004-05, only two players his size have finished more: Boris Diaw, who logged 112 in 2005-06 and 81 in 2006-07, and DeMarcus Cousins, who had 108 in 2017-18. Murray has been the screener for 50 of those plays. As a pick-and-roll ball handler, Jokic has made 41 passes resulting in a field goal attempt compared to attempting only 24 shots himself, per Synergy, but he tells me his first option on the play is actually to drive. This didn’t seem true. When I relayed that information to Connelly, he laughed and said, “Nikola, you’re a liar.”

Messing with the Nuggets’ executive branch has become something of a hobby for Jokic. Malone has been critical of Jokic’s body language in the past—Jokic would often sulk or end up talking a bad foul, which could set a bad example for the rest of the team. Malone says he’s never instructed Jokic to improve a specific basketball skill during exit interviews after the past two regular seasons; it’s all about improving his body and mind. This season, Jokic’s body language has gotten noticeably better, according to Malone. I asked Jokic if that’s something he worked on. “No, sometimes I do that for real to piss him off,” Jokic says. “No, I’m joking, I’m joking. But that’s something that I’m getting better at.”

Malone says that Jokic will now talk with referees before games, too. “He wants to know what their names are so he can communicate with them in a civil manner,” Malone says. “It’s just another sign of his continued development and maturation. It all gets back to him being a leader for us.” Even though a leadership position is not necessarily something Jokic wanted.

“They put me in that spot. I didn’t accept it,” Jokic says. “I didn’t accept it because I think this is a really good team and that’s why we’re playing good. I think one guy cannot be a team and one guy cannot do anything without a team, so, the team is everything for me.” But each player I spoke with lauded Jokic’s improvements. Barton said that while Jokic still isn’t the biggest talker, he’s been vocal when he needs to be. “He took a tremendous leap in that area and I’m so proud of him for that,” Barton says. “He’s going to be an All-Star. That’s his job now. He has to do that and embrace it.”

You’d hardly mistake Jokic’s leadership for that of Draymond Green, the Warriors’ brash, fiery frontman, but Jokic flashed some of the best parts of Green’s cerebral game even before he joined the NBA. I pulled up a video in which Jokic channels Draymond while playing overseas. In the clip, he fires a pass to an open shooter off the short roll instead of taking the layup. Jokic admitted he “always wanted to pass the ball,” and that shows in his game today. Murray has been the biggest beneficiary of Jokic’s playmaking; the pair is most potent in the two-man game.

The next time you watch the Nuggets, keep your eyes locked on Murray for a few minutes. That’s usually who Jokic is looking for, too—Murray has scored 144 of his 320 field goals on passes from Jokic. Murray jukes like it’s Madden and changes gears to create open space for a 3, floater, or layup. Wherever he goes, Jokic will find him.

Murray is having a strong season overall, with a career-high average of 18.8 points per game, but the team wants him to bring more consistency. “I have to help him with this, so it’s not just on him,” Malone says. “Instead of [scoring 46 one night and eight the next], let’s get 25 points a night. Great players are consistent. I realize he’s only a third-year player, and he’s gonna get there. But the sooner he gets there, the better off we’re going to be.” Connelly echoes the sentiment. He and Murray live close by in Denver. The duo will eat dinner at each other’s houses or go out and grab a burger to connect and talk hoops. “I tell him all the time, the greatest thing you can give to your team is consistency—not makes or misses. But he’s only 21,” Connelly says. “I called him recently and said, ‘I’m so hard on you all the time. You’re playing great, I’m really proud of you.’ I just, and he can vouch for this: To be great is hard. He could be special and I don’t want him to leave anything on the table.”

While it may seem odd that an NBA team has to urge its best player to shoot more, Jokic’s deferential nature is one of the franchise’s core tenants. Connelly and Karnisovas repeatedly mentioned character when citing the qualities they look for in the people they bring into the organization. Beasley, a young 3-and-D wing, says most of the pre-draft meetings with the Nuggets consisted of “off-court stuff,” like his family, his interests away from the game, and his film-watching habits. Hernangomez says the same.

Still, the Nuggets have needed more scoring from Jokic and Murray this season because Harris, Barton, and Millsap have missed 65 games combined. As good as Denver has been through the season’s first half, it will be even better once Barton and Harris are at full strength. When healthy, Barton is a spark plug and a shot creator late in games who makes the offense more unpredictable (in a good way). Harris made a leap last season, averaging 17.5 points a game with a 59.7 true shooting percentage, but he’s played only 27 games thus far while battling hip, hamstring, and ankle injuries. In fact, it was Harris, not Murray, who first developed two-man chemistry with Jokic. When he returns, the Nuggets will have another weapon.

The rest of the roster is filled with more complementary players. Point guard Monte Morris is behind only Tyus Jones in assist-turnover ratio in the NBA, and Plumlee is used as a facilitator and a rim runner. Isaiah Thomas, whom ESPN recently reported may debut in mid-February, could increase the team’s upside if he’s able to regain any of his All-NBA form from the 2016-17 season. For now, with so many players out and his young teammates still developing, Jokic is often forced to do what he’s long been hesitant to do: score.

I asked Jokic which players he watched most on YouTube growing up and his list included Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki, Boris Diaw, and Novica Velickovic—a Serbian forward who was named Rising Star of the EuroLeague in 2009, when Jokic was 14. Jokic is naturally more Diaw or Magic, but in the NBA, he’s had to learn how to be more Dirk or Duncan.

Sometimes, he also needs to be the Nuggets’ Buddy Hield. Jokic, who is averaging 19.6 PPG, scores the majority of his points via standard big man play types like post-ups, pick-and-rolls, and offensive rebounds. But he’s also logged more possessions off screens than any big outside of Anthony Davis.

Jokic can’t shoot like Hield, but he’s hit a strong 37 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s since entering the NBA in the 2015-16 season. Including 2-pointers, per Synergy, he scores 1.2 points per possession when shooting off screens. Opposing bigs aren’t used to running around a screen, and switching can create a mismatch. In one of the clips above, ex-Nuggets big Jusuf Nurkic looks like a bug flying into a light bulb once he sees Murray’s screen coming for Jokic. That play is just not something bigs are used to, and the Nuggets use it to their advantage.

Jokic didn’t have this expansive of an offensive skill set when he started his professional career overseas with the Serbian club Mega Leks. He played on the post, spotted up, and rolled down the lane in the pick-and-roll, but regularly bringing the ball up the floor and running through screens is new for his professional career. Jokic is a passer first, but the Nuggets have developed him into a player who can serve as a go-to scorer when they need a bucket.

Jokic’s improved conditioning helps him sustain his scoring later into games, too. In between when Jokic was drafted in 2014 and before his final season for Mega Leks, he spent the offseason working on his body, including at P3, the esteemed training facility in Santa Barbara, California. At P3, Jokic improved his vertical—though he still barely leaves the floor and has more triple-doubles (six) than dunks (five)—and worked on getting in better shape. The next season, he won Adriatic League MVP. “Nikola’s first game that year with Mega, he was so good. We watched it live and pinched ourselves,” Connelly says. “We were concerned when we drafted him that if you don’t get him over here quickly, does he get mired in traditional basketball? Is he backing up in your league for a coach who doesn’t allow this creativity?”

Fortunately for the Nuggets, that didn’t happen. Jokic left Mega Leks after one more season to join the Nuggets, and slowly his basketball genius was unlocked. Hernangomez, who played in Spain before joining Denver in 2016, says that it’s not just the speed or athleticism of the NBA game that’s a difficult adjustment, it’s the style. The game is faster, but there are also more isolations and one-on-ones, which means it often slows down, too. It gets really slow with Jokic. “They say Ted Williams could see the seams of the baseball. Well, the game moves at that glacial pace for Nikola,” Connelly says. “Everything is just so slow with him so he can see everything develop.”

As a young player for Mega Leks, Jokic displayed good instincts when jumping passing lanes. Effort and focus weren’t a question: You’d typically find him in the right position on defense. It was a bonus that he rebounded like his long arms were vacuums. But he lacked upper and lower body strength, so he got knocked around by equally imposing bigs on defense. At the end of games, he was running on empty. “My first year, I was getting tired and my brain was like … I couldn’t think. Right now, it’s getting easy for me,” Jokic says. Jokic has actually gained weight since entering the league, but it’s because he’s turned his baby fat into muscle. He weighed 250 pounds when he was drafted, and after years of working with team strength and conditioning coaches he’s up to 275 pounds. Jokic still wouldn’t make it far in a bodybuilding contest, but his conditioning has helped his defense.

The 2018-19 season has been, by far, Jokic’s best defensive season of his career. It may not be a coincidence that it’s Denver’s, too—the Nuggets are 11th in the NBA on D, up from 23rd a season ago. Denver opened this season hedging on more pick-and-rolls, which involves the big man stepping out to the screen, often forcing the ball out of the ball handler’s hands. Jokic’s change in physique, in addition to work with coaches, helped improve his lateral quickness—though he said he still views that as the area in which he can grow most. Though Jokic won’t trick anybody into thinking he’s an All-NBA defender, his improved mobility helps him rack up 1.3 steals and 2.2 deflections per game, which ranks near the top of the league for larger players. Jokic can then turn that defense into offense because of his playmaking skill.

Denver’s communication has also been better. During training camp, the Nuggets did something called a “quiet drill.” Mason Plumlee told The Ringer’s Paolo Uggetti in October that when players didn’t communicate in practice, the coaching staff would make them do the drill over, even if the coverage was effective. “We have more guys talking this year,” Plumlee says. “And now if we get guys listening too, even better. Talking is one part of it, but communication takes two.”

Forget the systematic changes. The Nuggets credit their improvements largely to continuity. Learning how to defend can be like learning a new language. Most young players aren’t good defenders, so naturally the Nuggets, a team loaded with them, would need time to reach their potential. Malone is in his fourth season in Denver, and seven players from the 2016-17 season are still on the team. “Guys have taken the challenge individually, and we’re covering up more for each other,” says Barton, who joined the team nearly four years ago and signed a new contract last summer that may keep him there through the 2021-22 season. “We want it more. [Chemistry] is at the highest level since I’ve been here.”

Millsap is on track to far exceed the 38 games he played all of last season. Those around the team credit the 33-year-old for developing the team’s defensive identity with his aggression, and for his skills switching and helping inside. “Paul always pushes the envelope of physicality and aggression,” Connelly says. “There’s no better teacher than wisdom; he has a lot of it and shares with our guys.”

The Nuggets are slipping, though. Since their huge win on the road against the Toronto Raptors on December 3, they’re allowing a dismal 112.6 points per 100 possessions over 22 games, which ranks 27th in that span. The team has turnstiles on the perimeter, and though Jokic is an underrated defender, he’s not an enforcer inside or a stopper on the perimeter. Denver still frequently drops Jokic when he defends screens, which can lead to open 3-point shooters.

That’s Klay Thompson, one of the greatest shooters ever, but Denver didn’t treat him like it by having Jokic drop to the paint. The problem is compounded when Harris, their best perimeter defender, is out. Beasley is a solid defender, but he’s no Harris, who is better at fighting over and through screens to stick to shooting threats like Thompson. Morris is solid, but he’s not a true stopper. And Murray too often loses focus defending off the ball and falters on on-ball screens, which leads to open shooters and drivers.

Opponents attempt an analytically sound 72.4 percent of their field goal attempts near the rim or from 3 against the Nuggets, which is the most in the NBA. It’s not like Harris’s presence is going to solve perimeter defensive problems, but he’d often get assigned to the opponent’s best player, which would help cover for any weaknesses.

Like many teams, the Nuggets need to find better defenders at the wing and forward positions. It’s doubly important since even when Jokic and Murray are playing with maximum effort, they’re likely the two players opponents will target in playoff situations. They’re a dynamic offensive duo, but how they coexist on defense deep into the postseason looms.

“We’ve never made the playoffs. You gotta walk before you can run,” Connelly tells me when I ask how the Nuggets can level up from from a really good regular-season team to Finals contender. “The playoffs are probably the best truth serum. It’s going to show you where we are. We’re not in a place yet to be cute. We can’t skip steps. We’re nowhere close to a championship-level team. We just have to show that we can compete with these guys in the playoffs.”

It’s true: The Nuggets aren’t close. The Golden State Warriors showed that earlier this month when they smoked Denver on its home court and scored a record 51 points in the first quarter en route to a 142-111 victory. “Failure can be a gift,” Malone says. “Take this failure, learn from it, and move forward. If we can do that, this negative turns into a positive.”

The Nuggets have 20-somethings up and down the roster and aren’t yet fully formed. Fortunately, all that youth also brings financial flexibility. Jokic, Harris, and Barton have all cashed in recently, but the rest of the roster remains cost-controlled. Even Millsap’s $30 million contract for next season is a team option, and if that’s declined before June 29, the Nuggets can create a projected $16.3 million in cap space this summer. If they don’t add any long-term contracts in 2019, they could open a projected $32 million in the summer of 2020 while still retaining the cap hold for Murray. The Nuggets will also enter this offseason armed with three large trade exceptions worth $13.8 million, $12.8 million, and $5.9 million, as well as the $9.1 million non-taxpayer midlevel exception and the $3.5 million biannual exception. They will have chances in free agency and the trade market to make big additions.

Denver is not historically a free-agent destination—Millsap and Andre Miller are the franchise’s biggest free-agent signings ever. Maybe a marquee player will be lured in by the prospect of being the final piece to Denver’s championship puzzle, playing with a passer like Jokic, or working with a well-respected coach like Malone. But until then, it’s important that the Nuggets invest in the organization beyond their roster—like adding a G League team and a dedicated training facility in Denver. Nuggets players will, however, have access to the Rams’ facility in Inglewood, California, once it opens in 2020. “When the new facility is built, it will be very Kroenke-sports-friendly,” Connelly says. “Our guys spend time in L.A., so it will be awesome to have the use of the new digs.”

As for the G League, there have been rumblings that the franchise is close to adding one; ESPN’s Jonathan Givony reported in October that the northwest suburbs have been targeted. For now, the Nuggets are one of only two NBA teams without a G League team entering the 2019-20 season (the Portland Trail Blazers are the other). The benefit of owning a G League team means the big league club has control of the coaching staff, the system, and the players, which can help foster development. It can also be used to give experience to younger execs, like WNBA legend Sue Bird, who joined as a front-office associate in November. “Everyone on our staff could run their own team,” Connelly says. With a G League team, someone could get that chance.

For now, Denver relies on assigning its players to different G League teams—like it did last season to great benefit with point guard Monte Morris. “We’ve kicked the tires in a bunch of different markets. We want to make sure it logistically makes sense, and there’s some viability from a business side,” Connelly says. He couldn’t offer a date when a team will be added, but says, “I’m sure we’ll have one soon enough.”

The goal, Connelly said, is for the Nuggets to achieve “sustained success.” “We didn’t want to be a one- or two-year team full of mercenaries,” he says. But at some point, this roster could get pricey, and Nuggets ownership will likely have to pay the luxury tax to keep it together. The Kroenke family, which purchased the Nuggets and the NHL’s Colorado Avalanche in 2000, has been inconsistent in its willingness to spend on its sports team investments across the world. Stan Kroenke has owned Arsenal FC, from the English Premier League, since 2007, but the club hasn’t received any owner financing over that time, according to a recent study. Arsenal coach Unai Emery recently said his team can only bring players on loan, not sign any permanently, which would be like if the Nuggets borrowed Dwight Powell from the Mavericks instead of signing Millsap outright. Arsenal fans believe that Kroenke uses the team to turn a profit to fund his other sports teams. He invested $1.6 billion in the stadium project in Inglewood and moved the Rams back to Los Angeles. Since last March, the Rams have dished out $237 million in guaranteed money, more than any other team in the NFL. The Rams are on their way to this year’s Super Bowl, and that has angry Arsenal fans rooting for the New England Patriots. Nuggets fans should hope that someday they’re the source of vitriol from Arsenal supporters; it’ll mean the Nuggets are spending.

The last time the Nuggets paid the tax was in 2009-10, the year following a run to the Western Conference finals, which ended in six games at the hands of the Los Angeles Lakers. Since then, the Nuggets have made countless moves to avoid the tax—including last summer, when they sent their 2019 first-round pick to the Brooklyn Nets to dump Kenneth Faried’s contract. Josh Kroenke, who took over for his father as president and governor of the Nuggets in 2010, told local reporters last summer that “We’ve paid the tax before. I don’t think we’re afraid to do so again.” Connelly says that’s been a consistent message from ownership. “We’ll do whatever it takes to win and if we have to keep this core together and pay the tax, so be it,” Connelly says. “If we’re going to be really good, you got to pay a lot of guys. That is a good problem to have.”

The Faried trade was about cutting costs, but it was more about the future than the present. Teams who pay the tax in three of the most recent four seasons are subject to the “repeater tax,” which is more punitive and threatens the stability of a team. But Kroenke will have to pay the tax at some point for this team to reach greater heights. Until that time comes, they’ll need to rely on what they’ve done best so far: collect young talent. “As long as you can draft fairly well, you can make it through most situations because you’re always gonna have talent,” Josh Kroenke said on The Woj Pod last March. “I think we made it through the muck of those first few years and got some pretty good young players out of it. Nobody bats a thousand. We took a lot of heat for moving down in [the 2017 draft] because the Jazz picked up a hell of a player.”

Kroenke was of course referring to the draft-night trade that sent the rights to Donovan Mitchell to the Jazz for Trey Lyles and the no. 24 pick, which the Nuggets used on forward Tyler Lydon. Kroenke explained to Adrian Wojnarowski that Denver made that trade because they were high on their guards, and highly valued Lyles—who they previously had tried to move up to get in the 2015 draft. The worst part of it all was the Nuggets were targeting O.G. Anunoby when they moved down, but the Raptors selected the Indiana wing one pick before them. “We’ve had as many misses as hits,” Connelly says. “What you can’t do is be paralyzed by the fear of missing again.”

The player every person in the organization is most excited to see play is Michael Porter Jr., whom the Nuggets drafted 14th overall in 2018. Porter was a projected no. 1 pick entering his freshman season at Missouri, but he had surgery last November to treat herniated disks in his back, and then a second surgery on his lumbar spine in July. While Porter played only 53 minutes at Mizzou, Connelly and Karnisovas both stressed there was plenty of information from his Team USA experience, high school, and competitions like Hoop Summit. “A colleague from a different team had a great line going into the draft: ‘Well, there’s no basketball risk with Porter.’ Wherever you think Michael was going to go last year, no one said Michael Porter’s not good at basketball,” Connelly says. “He’s a 6-foot-10 shot creator with a very high IQ who grew up in a basketball family that loves, loves, loves basketball.”

The Nuggets don’t shy away from injured prospects—Beasley fell in the 2016 draft because of a stress fracture in his right leg, and Denver scooped him up at 19th overall. With the no. 41 pick in 2018, the Nuggets added Jarred Vanderbilt, a quirky, playmaking big man who would draw Dennis Rodman comparisons if he dyed his hair and got facial piercings. Connelly said the team’s analytics model ranked Vanderbilt as one of the best rebounding prospects ever. But Vanderbilt fell to the second round because he suffered multiple foot injuries in high school, and then played only 14 games at Kentucky after surgery on his left foot. “Without injuries, he’s a top-15 pick,” Connelly tells me. “We need some dirty-work guys. We have a lot, a lot of skill guys.”

The Nuggets hope that Porter is among those skill guys. Connelly wouldn’t set a timeline for Porter’s return, but he said the 20-year-old is excelling in non-contact drills. “When you watch him go through the non-contact part of the practice, it’s hard not to get impressed, hard not to get excited about what it’s going to look like when he’s out there again,” Connelly says. “The fluidity is back, he feels like he’s right there. But even when you’re right there, we still want to be patient. We don’t wanna lose something in the long game with him.

“It’s awesome that he’s coming to a team where he doesn’t have to be the savior. We’re not chomping the bit like, ‘We need you.’ I think when he’s ready to get back out there, he’s going to make a huge impression and impact leaguewide.”

When he does, he could be a great fit for Denver’s funky structure: Porter has positional versatility to play the 3 if the Nuggets go with jumbo lineups, or play the 4 next to Jokic, much like Hernangomez and Millsap do now. It’s easy to imagine Porter plugging into that role, and using his savvy off-ball skills to set screens, pop to the 3-point line, or slice to the rim. Of course, Porter has far higher on-ball upside than either Hernangomez or Millsap. Connelly said that Nuggets assistant coach Mark Price calls Porter the team’s best shooter right now. “If you were kind of looking for something that we need to add to our team,” Connelly says, “you would probably describe Michael Porter.”

Porter needs to got a lot better, though, in key areas. For instance, he takes too many contested pull-ups, and often record-scratched the offense by holding the ball; that will all need to change now that he’s surrounded by so much talent. But he’s the kind of gamble that could elevate the Nuggets to another level if he reaches his potential. “I think Michael’s got something special,” Hernangomez says. “He has the body and the skill. He’s not 100 percent right now, but he has everything to be a really, really, really big-time player.”

No matter what happens with Porter, the Nuggets aren’t going anywhere any time soon. They have one of the youngest and most talented cores in the NBA. Denver isn’t quite at a championship level right now, but the next two summers could change that. “I think we can be really good,” Jokic says of his partnership with Murray. “We can become really unstoppable at some point, you know?” That would mean even more fame and even more attention for Jokic, but that’s just part of the job.


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